In the boozy heart of Aussie pub culture, Michael Green finds a sober, tactical sport and community of rising pool stars.
The game begins with an ear-splitting ca-raack. Players burst through the shot like policemen shouldering a door. The balls scatter. Twenty-two pool tables are aligned in a hall in suburban south-east Melbourne and at 10:30am, the frames begin. Competitors bend over their shots. Chins on cues, eyes hooded in shadow. We’ve entered the Whitehorse Club open singles eight ball championships. There’s $10,000 at stake.
Alec ‘Ace’ Evreniadis is here to win. The captain of the Australian pool team hasn’t flown from Adelaide just to make up the numbers. Steve Tran hopes to win too, but he’s not so bold as to say it out loud. Last weekend, Steve won the Melbourne Metropolitan Pool League ‘champion of champions’ trophy. Kolbe Poole, the aptly named three-time Victorian female champion, is here from Ballarat and aiming for the top 16.
Pool, or eight ball, is Australia’s pub game. Snooker and billiards are too complex. We choose reds or yellows, bigs or littles, stripes or solids. You know it: the beer-stained distraction in your local bar, where the balls drift sideways, the cues curve like bananas and nobody agrees on one shot or two.
Today, sure, they’re playing pool, but not like we do. Here, the best manoeuvre the balls with surgical precision. Every week, more 10,000 Australians play competitive eight ball. Each state and territory has teams, clubs, divisions, leagues and associations that make up a peak body. The Australian Eight Ball Federation runs annual national titles. This year they’ll be held in Launceston at the end of October. It’s a global game too. Our national over-50s team recently won the world crown.
The Whitehorse is an Italian social club set back from a six-lane suburban artery. Inside, behind pink curtains, players deliberate among the rows of green felt and low yellow lights. The playing floor is stocked with both wooden and denim-clad legs. It’s early but the bar and the greasy bain-marie are already running hot.
Today, 180 entrants – from teenage to old age – will play all day in a round robin on their allocated table. They’ll be cut to 128 for tomorrow’s knockout for the cash. Steve and Kolbe drew the same group, on table eight. Ace is around the corner on table one, the big game table, set apart from the rest. The crew from Pool TV, a Friday night prime-time show on Melbourne’s community Channel 31, has set up their gear and bright lights.
Kolbe is pool by name and by passion. Her partner, Jamie Stevens, is also a state player. She’s five-and-a-half months pregnant and bustles around the table without discomfort. The 29-year-old wears big hoop earrings and does her hair in a high, sporty ponytail. “I’m extremely competitive,” she says. “I hate to lose.”
Her first two frames go poorly, but she’s optimistic. “Hopefully those are my losses and that will be it.” She sips a can of cola through a straw and says her opponents so far, one of them Steve, are the best in the group.
Entrants and hangers-on cuss and banter while they watch. Clanking stubbies and clicking balls add to the din. The organisers call instructions from their desk: “Greg Daffy, table three. The Daff, to table three.” Bottles pile up on benches.
It’s a man’s game. One player tells me that although all types play, “you don’t really get a full cultural mix”. The stereotypical player is “a white, suburban male who’s into having a good car and a job. A conventional, wholesome, white dude.” And with that, comes booze. It’s an occupational hazard for a game held only in licensed venues. Mid-afternoon, a red-eyed man kicks over three chairs after a loss.
For Kolbe, breaking the mould is a blessing and a curse. “A lot of guys don’t rate women in pool,” she says. They get careless, and that helps her pick up a few frames she might otherwise lose. “But then, I don’t do as much practice as I should do. You get to a certain level and you don’t need to put in as much work. Whereas, with the guys, if they drop off for half a second then they’re not going to be making their state side anymore.”
Fresh from a comfortable win, she is playing a young man from Albury with glam-rock hair and tattoos up his arms. Six balls down, she methodically pots them all. To win, she has an easy black over the corner pocket. And misses. Ashen-faced, she concedes, shakes hands and paces away from the table.
Meanwhile, Ace and Steve calmly dispatch their opponents. Frames roll rhythmically on: the click of the cue on the ball; the clack of ball on ball; and the thud of the ball in the pocket.
The best players barely miss. Like chess, they plan tactics well in advance and lay traps for adversaries. They strike the ball crisply and it courses straight and true. Between each shot they chalk their cues meditatively, without paying attention to their hands.
Eight ball, despite the booze, is a logical and rational domain. With a measure of skill, strategy and application, problems can be solved. Each player, while they take their shot, controls their own destiny. In the end, it’s all about black and white.
But today is not Kolbe’s day. She wins her final frame, but after two more losses, it’s not enough to qualify. “I got myself intimidated after I missed the black over the pocket. It hasn’t been the same since.”
Competitors carry their cues in long, thin cases. Ace, wearing black dress pants and polished black shoes, is the slickest in the room. “I’m feeling good,” he says. Yesterday, he was tense from the flight and a long practice session.
There’s a hold-up while the organisers clash with their old computer. Tough-guy banter continues to flare around the hall, even though no one is boozing this morning. Ace, also known as Ice Man, secures a position in quiet corner, slips his headphones over his smooth, bald head and waits.
Steve Tran strolls in late. He’s a small, laconic man who has arranged his life around eight ball, and he knew there’d be a delay. The 34-year-old lives with his mother and works the early morning shift in Australia Post’s mail sorting room. Each night, he drives to competition or knockout tournaments around the city. “I’m single. If you’ve got a partner or you’re married it would be pretty hard to play full-on pool five nights a week.”
Each round is a best-of-five-frames knockout. First up, Steve draws Tracy Givvons. “She’s all right,” he says, chuckling. “But she plays with a different set of balls.”
“Go Trace,” a woman calls from the other side of the room. Trace wins the toss and stands up to break. “Watch me tear him a new arsehole!” she declares, to general mirth, and then doesn’t pot a ball. She shoulders Steve he passes. “If you can’t beat ’em, beat ’em up.”
Steve rests one hand in his front pocket and chews gum as he weighs up the winning shots. “I reckon his cue’s bigger than him,” Trace says, drinking a stubby of Carlton. “Before I started playing big tournaments, I’d always go watch Steve play. My favourite person to watch.”
Nobody kids with Ace. Called to table three, he places his two cues – a thicker tip for the powerful break and delicate tip for general play – with a water bottle and hand towel on a chair nearby. Serious and scrupulously fair, he brushes the table down before play, and then comfortably accounts for his opponent. He doesn’t lose a frame through the first three rounds. Click, clack, thud, they keep rolling in.
The 40-year-old owns two poolrooms in Adelaide. “It’s what I do, basically. That’s what I’m here for.” He has big dreams for eight ball – maybe it could even turn pro. “We all believe it’s a sport that could get on mainstream TV, you know. Some people think ‘oh well it’s just a game, you put the balls in the hole with a stick’, but there’s others that just love it. The challenge of it all.”
On table two, Steve has struck trouble. He stands back from the table, arms folded, and watches the final black roll in. A floppy-haired long-shot has beaten him in three straight frames. Later, he debriefs with a friend, Joe. “I didn’t have the run of the balls. At all.” On a spare table, they recreate the exact specifications of his bad luck. Joe commiserates. “It wasn’t your day mate, that’s all. It wasn’t mine either,” he shakes his head.
As the rounds go on, the crowd thins. Steve stays to watch and mingle. That’s the reason he plays, he says. It’s his scene. “I just go to have some fun, meet some people, catch up with friends.”
Kolbe is still here too. She’s playing in the ‘blonks comp’, for non-qualifiers and first round losers. “They’re really good weekends. It is a bit of a community; we’ve got our own little ‘families’ here and there.” Pool is a low-tech pastime, a hand-written letter among the spam of video games and poker machines. Another night, in an inner-city club, a history student tells me the pool hall is his ‘third place’. We pass our lives in our homes and at our workplaces, he says, but need somewhere else to give us a sense of community.
The sun is setting and Ace is still in the race. In the fourth round, he wins 3–2 with cool, clutch shot-making. “Next round now,” he says with a shake of the head. “Only two to win to get into the final.”
The last eight players draw their opponents in front of the Pool TV camera. Ace draws Terry Bond. It will be best-of-seven on table six. Bond has short, white hair and a barrel stomach that hangs well over his belt.
The national captain goes two frames down. In both, he had a shot on the black. Small crowds now hush around each of the quarter-finals. Some Italians from the club are watching, impressed. Ace is looking tired, but then wins the third briskly. It’s only 7:30pm but feels like midnight.
From the break, Ace sends the white ball rocketing off the table. With a two-shot penalty, Bond pots out. Next frame, tension builds. Ace sighs and peers at the angles as his opponent rolls the balls in. That’s it. The black goes. Losing hurts. “He played well. He didn’t give me any second chances,” Ace says, flat. He puts on his jacket, buys a bourbon and calls his wife in Adelaide.
Most frames end quietly, contrasting the riot of the break. Few balls are left on the table and the black rolls in softly, inevitably. It’s over now for Ace, Steve and Kolbe. In the final, Robbo beats Scary 5–4. He wins the money. It’s 1:00am by the time the Pool TV crew clear off. “If you lose, you lose,” Steve says. “Until next time.”
photography by Michael Green